Sunday, October 4, 2009


The esteemed city of ‘La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala’, now known as Antigua, but once the capital of Guatemala, has an interesting history. The Spanish, after being pushed out of one town by Indian unrest, and down the slopes of the Agua Volcano by a mudslide, established a third city in this location, below the Agua Volcano, the Fuego Volcano and one other whose name isn't so easy to remember, here in 1543.

I can't really do better than to quote/paraphrase the Lonely Planet guide on the subject.
Antigua was once the epicenter of power throughout Central America. During the 17th and 18th centuries little expense was spared on the city's magnificent architecture, despite the fact that the ground rumbled ominously and regularly. Schools, hospitals, churches and monasteries sprung up, rivaled in magnificence only by the houses of the upper clergy and the politically connected.

At its peak about 1770, the city had 60,000 people, 33 churches, including a cathedral, a university, printing presses, newspaper, and a lively political and cultural scene, plus municipal water and sewer. The rumblings never stopped, however, and for a year the city was shaken by earthquakes and tremors of varying degrees until the great earthquake of July 29, 1773 destroyed the city, which had already suffered considerable damage. Two years later, the capital was transferred to Guatemala City.
Antigua was evacuated and plundered for building materials. Despite official decrees the city never emptied and by 1830 it began to grow again. Renovation of the battered buildings helped maintain the city's colonial character, said to have been modeled on that of Seville, Spain.

The city is littered with ruins which have lain in their fallen state for centuries. Other structures have been partially rebuilt, although not to their original designs and with pillaged materials. Until the mid-twentieth century, Antigua was apparently a poor and sleepy little town. Despite being declared a national monument in 1944 and a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979, it wasn't until the early 1990s that the city was 'discovered'. There's been, apparently, a lot of building since then, but you wouldn't know it since all is required to be in 'colonial ambiance', so even the new places look old.

And, as LP points out, the rubbish is actually collected here, the streets cleaned, stray dogs 'disappeared'; some electric wires even run underground.

Antigua is a town for pedestrians, sort of. The streets are severely cobbled, bone-jarring no matter what vehicle you're in the school-bus buses, the tourist shuttles, the private cars and picops, the tuk-tuks, or bicycles. Even the colonially-ambient horse-drawn carriages may not be immune.

The pedestrians can keep their teeth, but need a second pair of eyes to deal with uneven sidewalks that are barely 36" wide and that drop and climb for every entrance, every car or cart ramp, every water and sewer connection. So it's not a town to wander lost in reverie. Better to stand still and gawk than to invoke too many senses at once.

Like a woman in a hijab, Antigua hides a lot of its beauty.Photobucket
Many little glimpses through open gates and doorways are of a fountain, a garden, something interesting, beautiful, surprising.
I felt like an architectural ogler, leering at flowered patios and shaded corridors. Plus, we were constantly lost. The numbered calles run north and south and the avenidas east and west, (or vice versa?) so it would be do-able if only there were street signs and fewer identical looking walls.
PhotobucketNonetheless, Antigua is a treat because it's so compact and so cosmopolitan, so different from other parts of Guatemala, even the modest portion we were privy to.

There are many similarities between Antigua and Annapolis: the restrictive physical layout, the time frame, the volcanic eruption/the silted harbor, the secret lives behind the sidewalk; even the population size of the geographical area is similar, and the greater cultural activity than offered in the hinterland. Also visitors descend each weekend from the capital 30 or 40 minutes away, parking their new cars in front of the high-end restaurants and hotels.

There's a neat cemetery, San Lazaro, which is an interesting choice of names. At first I was thinking of Lazarus who rose from the dead. Then I googled it and found another San Lazaro, a healer of physical and spiritual pain, in Cuban and other traditions. The morgue is conveniently located next to the office at the entry gate. At this cemetery, for the only time ever, I found the thing I casually look for at every cemetery I visit (which is most of them!). That is, someone who died the day I was born. Jose Braulio Perez might be a person whose torch I am carrying. cemetery

Visitors to Antigua find shops, and street vendors, mainly indigenous women selling native fabrics and clothing, jewelry, folk art. folk art
It's a more attractive and less complicated transportation hub for visitors to the Guatemalan Highlands than the real capital, so all the tourist shuttles seem to go through. It's the commercial center for many surrounding villages.
PHOTO MCHETESTDIt's full of language schools, and those so inclined can do volunteer work at orphanages and indigenous settlements while they learn.


The ex-pat community has quite a presence here, I've heard. There is much more that could be said, probably should be said, about Antigua, of which I'm unaware. However, I've got LOTS of photos which I've dumped here
so I'll let them do the talking. I promise, someday I'll shrink that file substantially.
Finally, no signs of life from the volcanoes or the ground, that I recognized. But days later a tsunami hit Samoa. And earthquakes killed many in Sumatra - not sure how the hope to be spared that is reflected in this cross.

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